It was the most expensive movie prop of all time.
Work began on the squid for Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in September 1952.
Harper Goff was the art director on the film, but because he lacked a union card, he went uncredited. (Disney hated unions, and would not help Goff get one.) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first Disney film to be storyboarded completely, and Goff rendered more than 60 sketches of the giant squid sequence alone.
Chris Mueller, who had helped design the monster in Creature From the Black Lagoon, sculpted the squid. (Model-maker Marcel Delgado may have helped some.) Mueller's giant squid differed only slightly from the real animal. When the model was scaled up, it was discovered that the squid's tentacles looked too short in comparison with its long body. So Mueller doubled the length of the tentacles and tapered them.
Mueller's small quid models were flexible, and were used to help block out the squid fight (with pipecleaner men standing in for the actors).
Robert Mattey was the mechanical effects supervisor tasked with bringing the squid to life. Mattey worked in the prop shop on King Kong and on a series of Tarzan movies, which gave him the opportunity to build a wide variety of mechanical animals. He had also constructed the giant octopus that attacked John Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch in 1948, which got him hired for the Disney film.
Mattey's squid was designed to be a purely mechanical prop. It moved using a combination of wires, hydraulic lines, compressed air lines, and electrical motors. The skin was latex rubber. To keep the tentacles and body light, the squid was stuff with kapok (a plant fiber used in pillows). Each tentacle was 40 feet long, and the two large "feeding tentacles" were 50 feet long. The Lucite eyes moved using small electric motors, and glowed from within. The beak was operated using a hydraulic ram. Altogether, the squid weighed a full ton, and 16 technicians were required to operate the puppet.
On March 10, 1954, director Richard Fleischer started shooting the fight with the giant squid in the shallow end of the tank on Disney's Soundstage 3. Soundstage 3 was a tank and soundstage created (along with several other Disney soundstages) specifically for the film. The size of the tank has been variously said to be either 60 by 125 feet or 90 by 165 feet, and either 3 to 12 feet deep or 3 to 18 feet deep. The cost of Soundstage 3 was $300,000 ($2.7 million in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars).
There were problems right off the bat. No one had thought through the scene much, being focused on the squid. The Nautilus' deck was even and didn't move, which it should have with all the people and the squid moving about on it. It "looked like a concrete island," said the unhappy director. The actors and stuntmen didn't take the squid seriously, and clowned around rather than fighting the animal. Because the movement of the tentacles was so restricted, they looked fake. Stuntmen had to wrap the limp tentacles around themselves and roll around on the Nautilus' deck in order to make it appear as if they'd been "caught" by the squid. The script called for the scene to occur at sunset on a clear day. The sunset (painted on a canvas background) made the wires attached to the tentacles very obvious. The kapok soaked up so much water, big chunks of it broke through the thin latex skin and plunked heavily and wetly on the ship's deck and into the water. Eventually, the tentacles became too heavy and snapped the wires holding them up.
After eight days, Fleischer called a halt to shooting. "No matter what you tried to do with the squid, it looked phony as hell," he said. (One report claims Disney himself called a halt to shooting. But he would not have been on the set, so this is a suspicious claim.)
The film was being edited into a rough cut as dailies came in. Walt Disney saw a rough edit of the squid fight four or five days after Fleischer gave up on it. Because there was no sound yet, the editor who put the footage together dubbed in voices for James Mason and the squid. The result was hilarious: While Mason was jabbing at a tentacle with his harpoon, his dubbed voice would say, "Sorry about that, old chap." Then the squid's beak would open and reply, "That's quite all right, dear boy, because I have nine more!" Even Walt laughed.
It is not clear at all who came up with the idea for transforming the scene from a placid sunset on a clear day to a typhoon at night. Various authoritative accounts of the film say it was either Robert Mattey, screenwriter Earl Felton, or second unit director James C. Havens. But the suggestion served multiple purposes: The dark and the wind-driven rain would serve to hide the wires, and the waves, wind, and rain would make the scene more dramatic.
Roger Broggie (a mechanical engineer then working on the Disney Railroad for Disneyland) helped design the new squid. Assisting him was John Hench, a storyboard artist and layout animator, who helped stage the new squid fight and determine exactly what kinds of movements the puppet would have to accomplish. The redesign effort began about March 21, and did not end until about April 15.
The squid's original skin had deteriorated so much that a new latex skin had to be poured from the existing molds. This time, the body was filled with fiberglass cloth, which would not absorb nearly so much water. Each tentacle contained a massive steel spring and pneumatic plastic tubing. The spring kept the tentacle curled up. When air was forced into the tubing, the tentacle uncurled. When the air pressure was reduced, the tentacle would curl up again -– wrapping itself around whatever object or person was nearby. Eight to ten wires were attached to each tentacle. Some extended upward, where a technician standing on a narrow overhead rail moved the tentacle up and down. Some extended to the side, where technicians off to either side moved the tentacle laterally. When a tentacle grabbed a sailor, the overhead technicians would drop their wires and the weight of the tentacle would cause the stuntman to fall to the deck and be dragged along by the weight of the tentacle. It was a realistic effect.
The head and tail of the squid were mounted on a hydraulic lift, which in turn was mounted on a dolly. This enabled the head to move up to eight feet in any direction, allowing it to squirm on the deck of the Nautilus.
The new squid weighed two tons and cost $200,000, making it the most expensive movie monster of the 1950s.
It took at least 60 people -- some of them standing as much as 50 feet away -- to operate the puppet. Scores of backup personnel stood by to help. To ensure that no one was injured by the swiftly-moving, heavy puppet and to ensure that action and stunts happened as needed, the squid fight was extensively choreographed. A week of rehearsal was needed to ensure that the stunts and acting could happen fast and in real-time without slip-ups.
With Fleischer busy with other scenes by now, second unit director James C. Havens restaged and reshot the squid fight. A veteran director of action sequences, Havens had worked on the sea film Captains Courageous and both versions of Mutiny on the Bounty, and directed all the underwater scenes in Creature From the Black Lagoon.
The reshooting began on April 26. To make the typhoon, Havens leased a dozen wind machines, dump tanks, and water cannon from MGM. Art director John Meehan (a union member brought on board to finish the art direction which Goff could not, due to his non-union status) replaced the sunset background with a black and gray cyclorama. The cyclorama was pure black at the top but only medium-dark gray at the horizon line, so that a horizon would show up on camera.
Because the squid fight took place at night during a storm, neither Kirk Douglas nor James Mason were needed on the set; stuntmen could do their actions, as their faces would be obscured by dark and wind-driven rain. Mason and Douglas only showed up on Soundstage 3 on May 10 and 11 to film close-ups, which were directed by Fleischer. Mason suffered a life-threatening accident on the set. Accounts vary as to what happened. In one version, one of Mason's legs became entangled in a lateral wire. He was swept off the deck of the ship and into the water, and almost drowned before the crew freed him. Another version has it that Mason and Douglas were filming a segment in which the squid grabs Mason's legs and pulls him underwater. A cable was attached to Mason's legs to pull him into the tank. A light weight on the other end of the cable provided the pulling force. Another cable was attached to Mason's midsection, ran up his shirt sleeve, and up Kirk Douglas' shirt sleeve to an off-camera winch. When activated, the winch overcame the pull of the weight, and Douglas would be seen to "pull" Mason out of the water realistically while Mason was still seemingly weighted down with the tentacle. The problem was that the winch jammed slightly, and Mason wasn't pulled from the water. He almost drowned before the wire holding him under was released.
On May 12, reshoots on the squid fight wrapped.
The reshoot cost Disney $200,000 and a whopping six week delay. With Disney at work on Disneyland, the studio was almost bankrupt! Luckily, Walt had the foresight to build some bleachers on the set, and invited investors and bankers to come and watch the squid scene being filmed. A few did so. When the footage was put together in a rough edit about May 15, Disney invited his bankers to screen the footage. They were so impressed they gave him a $1 million loan.
After the film wrapped, the squid was placed in storage. On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened. Cost overruns had forced severe cutbacks at the park, including most of its attractions and rides. Walt Disney hit on the idea of reusing the Nautilus sets from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a walkthrough attraction. The night of July 16, Walt Disney decided to pull the squid puppet out of storage and add it to the exhibit. By then the puppet's latex skin had seriously deteriorated, and Disney himself joined Ken Anderson and other workers in donning masks and coating it with fluorescent paint for the exhibit. The puppet remained there until the attraction closed in 1966.
In 2002, 16mm behind-the-scenes footage came to light showing the crew shooting the first squid fight scene. This footage was shot in the last day or two of the Fleischer shot, and shows how flat the action and scene was.
All the images below are from the first, failed shoot. You can tell because the ship's deck is not canted.